4 Harsh Things I Learned About Burnout The Hard Way

These stark realizations about burnout were something I could only learn through first-hand experience.

woman dealing with burnout stressed with hands on face Dragana Gordic / Shutterstock

As I sat in bed in my dorm room sophomore year of college, a feeling of dread and misery washed over me — I was convinced I was never going to graduate. In the midst of a bout of depression, I couldn’t possibly see a way for me to stay at that school for another two years.

A few years later while working on a film set I struggled to choke back tears, gasping for air to calm my racing heart and stop my runaway thoughts, and realized I was having a panic attack in the middle of 16th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan.


At both points in my life, I could see no logical way forward. All I saw was the darkness, dread, and panic of the moment in which I was trapped.

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A few years ago, I felt that same feeling of dread and darkness — except this time I wasn’t anxious or depressed. I was burned out.


I realized that burnout isn’t so different from these experiences of anxiety or depression. At the bottom of the pit of burnout, you’re so far down into the depths of the earth that when you look back up, there’s no speck of daylight visible, no signs of life, just utter darkness.

You can’t see in front of you to know if your feet are on solid ground, can’t articulate to anyone whether you need a ladder or a rope to get you out to safety. Once you realize you’re burned out, you can’t see a way forward to help yourself, and can’t tell others what you need so they can help you.

These stark realizations about burnout were something only first-hand experience could truly illuminate.

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Here are 4 things I learned about burnout the hard way:

1. Burnout feels as hopeless and confusing as anxiety or depression

If you’ve never identified yourself as burned out, you might wonder what the difference is between extreme stress and burnout. In my unprofessional opinion, stress and pressure are hurdles to overcome. You can see the challenge in front of you, you can see the other side, but you’re not sure how to get there.

Do you take a running leap? Grab a ladder and climb over? When you’re stressed it’s emotional, but you have the wherewithal to figure out what steps you need to take to get through it.

Burnout, on the other hand, is complete darkness.

This makes it feel like burnout is impossible to recover from. It makes it nearly impossible to have others help you find a way out.


Now, unlike anxiety or depression, burnout is not a diagnosable psychological disorder according to the Mayo Clinic. But recognizing the similarities to my experience with anxiety and depression made me oddly hopeful. I not only know how to recognize and manage anxiety and depression, but I’ve also gotten through them both. Knowing that I’d climbed out of that pit before made me realize I could do it again.

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2. Crying makes a woman look weak, but it’s sometimes the only thing that gets people to take women seriously

Unseemly. Emotional. Unprofessional. For women, crying at work is seen as a sign of weakness. It’s an indicator that you can’t be taken seriously because you don’t know how to separate your emotions from the workplace. It can be mortifying, embarrassing, and in some instances, career-limiting.

But burnout often manifests itself as unbridled emotions. For me, I only realize I’m burned out when the tears start to fall as fast as my typing.


Something odd happened when I hit the bottom of burnout. When I cried in a meeting, all of a sudden, I felt my concerns were taken seriously. Maybe it’s because of how unexpected it was to see me cry at work since I’m someone who is usually so "on top of it," so focused on execution and delivery.

When I can’t do anything to hold back the tears, I am mortified, apologetic, and disappointed in myself for coming across as “that woman” at work. But I shouldn’t be mortified — it’s work that drove me to this point. Not being heard, and not having my concerns taken seriously up until this point caused the tears.

This time, tears worked to my advantage. Tears got me the help I had been asking for. Tears made others realize, "Oh shit, this is serious," just like it made me realize, "Oh shit, this is serious." It should never have taken uncontrolled crying at work for me or others to recognize that there was a problem.

But that’s exactly what it took. That’s an uncomfortable realization to have — and one that I wish I had a way to address so that I or others don’t have to get to that breaking point before getting help again.


3. While I can’t figure out how to help myself through burnout, I can still help others

At my lowest due to burnout, I didn’t have the wherewithal to formulate why I was upset or what I needed. As I cried on the phone to supportive friends and colleagues, they dictated to me exactly how to put my emotions into words so someone could help me.

Yet even though I couldn’t see through my own despair to help myself, I was able to help others identify their own burnout and walk them through how to approach their unique situations. I don’t know if that’s resilience, or the desire to pay it forward, but helping someone else through their own experience gave me a sense of purpose and direction that I otherwise couldn’t find for myself.

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4. I only know I’ve crossed the line into burnout once it’s far behind me

Hindsight is always 20:20, but that’s never been more true than with my burnout experience. In the middle of it all, I would never have told you I was burned out — I was just stressed! Things were simply busy, that’s all. But once I broke down — meaning, I had been burned out for quite some time — it was then that I realized just how long I had been burned out.


How do I know I’m "through" with burnout? Have I really made it to the other side? After almost three years of a pandemic, with almost constant stress and exhaustion for many people, it feels like we’re saying "Are we there yet?" over and over again.

So, what makes me know I’ve finally made it to the other side of burnout?

  • I get a full night’s sleep and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start the day
  • I end the workday with enough energy to make dinner, walk the dog, and see or talk to friends
  • I don’t cry at 9 am or in the middle of meetings
  • I am excited about the work I do and look forward to logging back in

These are now what I consider my pillars of well-being — yours might be different. Learning what your burnout triggers are, what your signs are, and what your pillars for well-being are can help you identify for yourself whether you’re stressed or burned out — and how to identify a way forward.

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Jodi Innerfield is a marketer and writer who strives to tell compelling stories that simplify complex ideas.